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Designer Diary and Game Overview: Arboretum, or Losing (and Finding) Yourself Amongst the Trees

Dan Cassar
United States
Wyndmoor
PA
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"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them — that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." —Lao Tzu

I was sitting on the grass on a glorious spring day among stunning magnolias and cherry blossoms. A man with long, gray hair stood with his feet set wide, knees bent, his jaw set. He held a long bow. His face was serene and his eyes never veering from his target as he lifted the bow slowly over his head, then brought it down, drawing the arrow with a smooth, seemingly effortless motion. With a sudden shout, he sent the arrow on its way, and it lodged itself into the target and the hay bale behind it with a thwack. I noticed that even as the audience applauded, his face was unmoved. It took a moment for him to step out of his archery stance to address the people around him. He was demonstrating the art of kyudo — what's sometimes called "zen archery" — a meditative practice that focuses on an idea that if one is in harmony with the world, one cannot help but achieve a true aim. Hitting the target is almost incidental. It becomes a natural consequence of being fully present.


Morris Arboretum

It was 2011. I was with my pregnant wife at the Japanese festival that takes place at the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum. We had recently completed the trip of a lifetime from Beijing to Mumbai over nine months, and now we had started a new life in a new city, with the birth of our son just weeks away. After the demonstration, we began walking through the park, along wide paths, rolling lawns stretching out to either side. We were chatting, enjoying ourselves, talking about what lies ahead. We didn't have a destination in mind. We stopped beside a pond, watching the ducks squabble over something in the water. Of course with a baby on the way, we couldn't help talking about the future, and yet we were fully present, following a meandering path through the arboretum, just taking it all in.

Of course, we didn't just decide one day to take a nine-month excursion through Asia. Doing it successfully took two years of planning and cooperation. When we met, I asked Erin: Do you want to live in India? Absolutely, she had said. That's when I knew she was right for me. She didn't blink an eye. We had a vision: We wanted to see everything there was to see in the world. So we started early on, she and I, planning. We knew we'd need to quit our jobs. We knew we'd have to be careful with our money, but in the end, we were able to make it happen. I don't know if either one of us knew what to expect, but we knew that it was a journey we wanted to take.

We began in China, arriving in Beijing with only a general idea of what we wanted to see. Thrust into a new world where we did not speak the language, having little more than a Lonely Planet to guide us, we learned over time that the life of a traveler is one of near constant uncertainty. We never knew where we were going to be the following week; we would find lodging when we arrived. Getting something to eat sometimes amounted to pointing at something on a menu with no idea what we would get. Over the course of the trip, we had to learn to let go. We had to be prepared, but allow things to happen. We had to think ahead, but always allow for the unexpected detour. Living presently, being mindful of our surroundings, listening hard, being quick to laugh, willing to compromise — these were our survival skills as we made our way through Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and, yes, eventually, we made our way to India.


Erin and Dan at the Taj Mahal

But we decided to return home and now we were ready to embark on a new kind of journey. Perhaps fittingly, we had been playing Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities every night for weeks. Both of us loved the card play, the sense of give and take that it had as you tried to simultaneously advance your own goals while having to remain cognizant at all times of what your opponent was doing. And as we walked through the Morris Arboretum, this game was definitely on my mind. That night I thought to myself about how "Arboretum" would make a great name for a game, and that one takes a journey through an arboretum just as one might take a journey to some exotic location.

The ascending values of the cards in Lost Cities represent progress along a path toward an ultimate goal. When preparing for an expedition to some forgotten temple, one prepares, prepares, prepares, and then strikes out. I wanted to use Knizia's ingenious metaphor and adapt it to a different kind of travel. In Knizia's game, players start small and work their way up, hoping that they have enough resources to make it worthwhile. Wandering through a botanical garden is a different experience altogether. One starts at one point and ends up in another. There is a sense of progress, of moving forward, but it's not defined until the end. In Arboretum, players start in the middle and work their way outward. The paths they're creating grow organically, slowly building outwards, discovering new colors and new directions at each step of the way. Maybe this path is a short stroll through the maples; maybe we've been through that way before on the way to a stand of cassia trees. We might not know where we're going until we get there.

And so probably from the very first day I started writing down ideas in my notebook for this game, the general mechanisms were set: I wanted the players to each grow a garden by laying cards adjacent to one another to form paths represented by numerically ascending series of cards. But by itself, this didn't create a fun game. It was just not interesting enough. I tried many different ways to make it work, including having players all contribute to the same arboretum, having hidden goals, and representing visitors as their own cards in the deck.


Members of the NYC-Playtest group playing an early prototype of Arboretum

One particular part of the game that I was constantly adjusting was hand size. When it was too large, the cards in hand felt unnecessary, and when I shrunk it down to a size where it became a real constraint, play felt random. I came to recognize that this was the part of the game that was missing, and quickly from that insight, I hit on the idea that it could become part of the scoring mechanism. Suddenly, it fell into place. Each phase of the game felt tense: which cards to draw, which card to play, and which card to discard.

But one final pattern emerged in playtesting that I felt needed to be solved: ones and eights. Ones were almost always being laid down and eights almost always held back. For a game where every other decision felt appropriately uncertain and situational, this was something I felt compelled to address. The "one cancels the eight" rule felt like it completed the scoring system.


The version of the game that I submitted to Z-Man

At the end of the year, I went to the first Metatopia, the game design festival held in northern New Jersey. There I met Zev Shlasinger and showed him Arboretum. The following year, at the second Metatopia, he told me that Z-Man Games had decided to publish it. I am in awe of the spectacular art that it has been given. I'm so very proud of this game, and I am delighted to be able to share it with all of you.

So remember to think ahead, but be prepared to change directions. We never know where our lives will take us, but if we follow our hearts, the path will be made clear.

Dan Cassar


Sample arboretum layout by WEM


•••


Arboretum gameplay overview by W. Eric Martin:

While Cassar gave some hints at the gameplay of Arboretum in the write-up above, I thought I'd present a more detailed overview of how to play the game, which I've played five times so far on a press copy from Z-Man Games. The short description is that the Lost Cities DNA comes through strongly in the feel of the game, the dynamic tension of extending a path versus keeping cards in hand for strength later versus giving up what opponents need. The games feel similar in those areas, but Arboretum is its own design.

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